Murder on Mount Hood

Murder on Mount Hood

Perry Vickers
Perry Vickers

When one thinks of Mount Hood they don’t usually think of crime, especially such severe crime as murder, but there’s one story that is a part of Mount Hood’s past that should be told.

The Oregon Trail had been active for about 40 years, with the Barlow Road becoming the main route to the Willamette Valley. The Barlow Road was a toll road with toll gates placed on the route to gather toll from the travelers. One toll gate keeper will be remembered as an integral part of Mount Hood’s cultural history.

Government Camp
Government Camp

Perry Vickers was one of the first residents of the south side of Mount Hood, an area that today includes the little ski town of Government Camp. He was well liked by everyone in the area especially those who were passing over the south side of Mount Hood on the Barlow Road road in their wagons. He had squatters rights at Summit Meadow, a natural clearing at the top of the pass as the road began to descend the west slope of Mount Hood and the last stretch before arriving at their destination in the Willamette Valley from points east. He built the first travelers accommodations in the area when he built the Summit House in Summit Meadow. He had a corralled field for grazing the stock as well as a series of buildings including a lodge, a store and barns.

Rhododendron Tollgate
Rhododendron Tollgate

During his time on Mount Hood Portland grew exponentially with the new settlers that poured into the Oregon country. A trend was to return to the mountain that held so many challenges to them and their families during the immigration to recreate. Perry Vickers was Mount Hood’s first climbing guide. Hiking and climbing the peak was very popular at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was an enthusiastic promoter of early visitation and recreation on Mount Hood. He even created a tradition of illuminating the mountain by carrying fuel for a large fire near what is now known as Illumination Rock. He is attributed with being the first person to spend a night on the top of Mount Hood.

Perry Vickers was described as a dreamer and a poet. The Oregon Historical Society has some of his verses of sunrises and sunsets and of his beloved mountain. He didn’t start out his residence in Oregon on quite a solid footing. His early days here are said to have been troublesome. Perry Vickers arrived in Vancouver Washington in 1865. As he was looking for work he fell into the company of three other young strangers in a seemingly similar situation. As it turned out their situation was somewhat different than his.

As he was in the company of his three new friends military officers from Fort Vancouver arrested the group and charged them with horse theft, quite a serious crime back then. They were held for about two months as they awaited trial, each wearing what was referred to as an “Oregon Boot”, a seven pound iron clevis that was worn on an ankle to impede any progress of escape similar to a steel ball and chain.

As they were arrested together, held together in the same cell, and although unsure of the guilt of his cellmates, he was sure that he would be found guilty by association. He felt that he needed to escape. Their cell was made of wood and so in time the method was created for the break out. Several 2″x4″ wooden window bars were removed and the group escaped into the night. Once Vickers was away he separated from his undesirable companions as he heard activity indicating that their escape had been discovered. Still weighted down by his Oregon Boot, he stumbled his way away from the fort toward the Columbia River. The sounds of those in pursuit became louder and he soon found himself about to be surrounded as he stood on the bank of the river.

His ankle was becoming chaffed and and painful and he tried for a moment to find a way to pry off the iron implement around his ankle. As the sounds of pursuit became louder he knew that he had only one choice, to attempt to swim the mile wide and swift Columbia River. It’s not sure how he learned to swim, but he indeed made it to the other side still carrying the weight of his seven pound clevis attached to his ankle.

Once  across the river he came across a small farm where he was able to find some tools to remove the iron device. He found an old wagon wheel wrench that he used as a hammer and a bolt to use as a punch to remove the pin that held it together. The next morning he came across some wood cutters who fed him and gave him directions to Powell Valley where his brother lived. Once there his brother gave him clothes and supplies and advised him to head to Eastern Oregon by way of the Barlow Road and seek work until things cooled down for him.

Stephen Coalman
Steven Coalman

As he headed east he came across Stephen Coalman, the one who was in charge of maintaining the old Barlow Road. He told Vickers that he would be hiring help to clear the road after the Winter storm’s damage. That June he went to work for Coalman, and developed a lifelong friendship. Stephen Coalman and his son Elijah “Lige” Coalman became legendary on Mount Hood for their many adventures. Stephen Coalman had said that through time Vickers proved that his character was not one of a horse thief and was convinced that Vickers was a victim of circumstances.

That June the crew set up camp at Summit Meadow and Vickers took time to explore the area from there to the timberline level of Mount Hood. Thrilled by his hikes he swore that he would climb to the top of the mountain.

Vickers took the job of gatekeeper on the eastern entrance to the old road, away from the chance of being recognized as a fugitive. In time his friend Stephen Coleman persuaded him to return to the west side of Mount Hood, assuring him that if need be he would secure legal services to defend the horse stealing charges if necessary.

Summit Meadow
Summit Meadow

No charges were ever brought against Vickers, but in his trips to the west side he fell in love with the area, especially the area around the summit meadows right under the looming view of the south side of Mount Hood. He envisioned a business. One that would help travelers as they passed through. He filed for a squatter’s claim at Summit Meadow and went to work on the buildings there between his work on the old toll road.

Summit House
Summit House

By 1866 work on the Summit House was underway. It was a large building, 20x20x32 feet with a huge fireplace at one end and sleeping quarters upstairs and spacious cooking arrangements. He built all of the furniture from natural materials. In the Spring of 1868 he opened up the Summit House as soon as the snow melted and the road was cleared. He provided food for travelers as well as their livestock, spaces for camping and in many cases insisting in having folks in for a meal.

An enduring story is told of a day when a group of wagons came to Summit Meadow in 1882. A baby boy from one of the parties, the Barclay family, was ill and died at the meadow. Vickers granted permission for the baby to be buried at the meadow. The little graveyard and headstone are still there today.

Summit Meadow Campers
Summit Meadow Campers

For many years Vickers resided at Summit Meadows and helped countless travelers that passed by and hundreds of people to the top of the mountain, until one day in August of 1893 when a man named Steele, a farm hand near the Columbia Slough, stole his employers shotgun and headed east. Not many more details are known, but the Multnomah County Sheriff was called and two men were deputized, one being the owner of the stolen gun a man named Roarke, and sent after Steele.

Sandy Oregon
Sandy Oregon

The deputies reached Eagle Creek and had to have their Multnomah County warrant re-issued in Clackamas County, where they learned that Steele had traded the shotgun for a Sharps rifle.They reached the town of Sandy where the weather turned bad. They stayed only long enough to buy a bottle of whiskey and then they went on their way. The two men reached the town of Salmon, near the present town of Brightwood where they met local resident John McIntyre who owned a trading post there. It was then that one of the deputies decided to return home as he became ill. At that time John McIntyre was deputized and the two men proceeded to travel east toward Summit Meadow.

Salmon Oregon
Salmon Oregon

Once the men reached Summit Meadow and Perry Vickers’ Summit House, Vickers advised them that Steele had stayed there the night before and he had judged him to be an unsavory character and said that he knew nothing of the gun theft. He also told them that he had mentioned that he was going to camp at White River, further to the north and east from where they were. Because the deputies had drank some of their whiskey Vickers told them that he would advise them to get some sleep and to proceed in the daytime. He also thought that they would be at a disadvantage in the dark. Roarke insisted that they push on into the night. Vickers told them that they would eat and then he would go with them after Steele.

With Vickers deputized the men mounted their horses and, because of his familiarity of the area, Vickers took the lead. The group made it to the White River Trading Post which was operated by a man named Gray and his family. It was there beyond the buildings that the men spotted a camp fire. They figured that it was Steele. Being concerned for the condition of his companions, and because he was equipped with a set of Colt Revolvers, Vickers volunteered to proceed toward the fire while the other two stood back to provide back up in case of trouble.

Vickers rode toward the campfire that would make the two horsemen barely visible in the background and confirmed that it was indeed Steele. Steele was aroused as Vickers approached and appeared to come forward to talk. Vickers went to dismount his horse and as he was in a helpless position Steele picked up the Sharps rifle and shot Vickers in the stomach. As he fell from the horse he grabbed one of his revolvers but didn’t get off a shot before Steele disappeared into the darkness of the night. Vickers emptied his revolvers into the night, thought that he hit Steele but this was never proven.

Cornelius Gray heard the gunshots from his trading post, grabbed his rifle and came running. Two other men who were at the trading post as well as the two deputies got to Vickers who was on the ground in agonizing pain and mortally wounded. They took Vickers inside Gray’s home.

Vickers claimed that he saw his companions come toward him, but not until after they drew away during the gunshots. The men claimed that their horses bolted from the shots. As he lay there he confronted the two men, say that they were too experienced with guns and horses to believe them and that he claimed them to be cowards, this account being from Cornelius Gray.

A rider was sent to get Stephen Coalman, Vickers best friend, but Vickers knew that he didn’t have much time. Vickers said that he had some laudanum at his place and that he had killed the pain in a lot of other people and he said that no one will be able to help him much. Vickers died before his friend could return.

Many of the locals from the era helped with his burial. Samuel Welch and Stephen Mitchell split the boards for his coffin. Oliver Yocum, the man who established the town of Government Camp officiated the ceremony. Perry Vickers was laid to rest in the little graveyard next to the baby Barclay, as were his last wishes. Their headstones can still be seen today at the west side of the meadow.

Stephen Coalman kept Vickers’ blood stained coveralls for years after with hope that they may be used as evidence to convict Steele of Vickers’ murder. A couple of years later a horse thief was hanged in eastern Oregon that claimed that he had killed a man in the Cascade Mountains. It was assumed that this was Steele. Not long after that Stephen Coalman burned Vickers coveralls, closing a chapter of an era on Mount Hood, and the case of Mount Hood’s first murder.

The Loop

I’ve lived on the old Columbia River Highway in Bridal Veil, and currently live along the course of the Barlow Trail in Brightwood. My love of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, and my interest in their history has driven my research into the story of both routes and the development of the Mount Hood Loop Highway. Mount Hood is the only glacial peak with a road that completely circles it allowing access to the peak from every direction.

Wagon at Government CampThe great highway during the initial surge west of the immigrants was the “Great River of The West”, the Columbia. Many families rafted what was left of their earthly belongings, and in many cases what was left of their families down the perilous river route through cascading rapids and laborious portages to the Willamette Valley in search of the “Land of Milk and Honey”. Because of this migration, the initial establishment of the overland roads by and large carried traffic from east to west following game and native trails, the primary route being over the southern shoulder of Mount Hood.

Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer arrived in charge of separate wagon trains at The Dalles in September of 1845 and found a shortage of everything, and a long wait for the dicey trip down the river. They both felt that the prospect of staying in The Dalles until a guide could be secured was more than their patience or their budget could endure. Considering the fare charged by the River Guides and the expensive prices for supplies at The Dalles, and the fact that the trip was not just a leisurely float downstream, a land route around Mount Hood sounded like a good idea. Hearing of Sam Barlow’s plan to cross the southern shoulder of Mount Hood, Joel Palmer decided to follow him with his own wagon train, overtaking them soon after.

Moving south along the Deschutes and up the White River they burned and slashed their way to the south shoulder of Mount Hood before succumbing to the arduous labor and the oncoming winter weather which required them to stash their wagons and head in the most expedient way to Fosters Farm and on to Oregon City, with the weaker ones of the party riding their tired stock. December of that same year found Samuel Barlow petitioning the territorial government for a permit to operate a toll road over the path that he and his companions traveled the previous October.

In time several routes were pushed through the Columbia River gorge to the valley, including supply/trade and cattle trails as well as a Military road. By the 1880’s railroads were running through, and of course in 1913 the first paved road was built through in the form of the Scenic Columbia River Highway, of which much has been written.

Meantime on the South side of Mt. Hood Sam Barlow’s road was changing too. Nearly put out of business by the gorge routes, the old Barlow road went through many private hands and states of repair and disrepair before it was handed over to the state to be developed into a highway, much along the same route that we drive today along Highway 26.

Welches HotelBy the late 1800’s the immigrants had established their civilization and now many of the next generation wanted to play in the outdoors that their parents fought to survive in fifty years before. Mount Hood is in Portland’s back yard and it beckoned from its position on the horizon visible from most any part of the city, calling them to the mountains. Outdoor sports were very popular then, much like they are today, and many would take the road to the mountain for a guided trip to the summit, or as time went by to the ski slopes in the winter. Summer found them taking wonderful alpine hikes, festooned with breathtaking vistas, fields of wildflowers, creeks and lakes. Fishing and hunting trips were also taken to teaming rivers and the forests abundant with wild game.

Mountain lodges and road houses were established to cater to the tourists, including Welch’s Ranch and Tawny’s Mountain Home as transportation methods and road conditions improved. Horse drawn stages and then auto stages started regular runs from Portland to Mount Hood and back. Many would stop and stay at Welches and others would make the trip to Government Camp where the guides would take them to the top of the mountain.

In 1911 E. Henry Wemme, an automobile enthusiast and Portland businessman, purchased the old road from the Mount Hood & Barlow Road Company with the intentions of improving the route to the mountain and points east for the automobile that was to become the new wave of modern transportation. Two years later he offered the road to the government, who turned down his offer. He died the following year and willed the road to his attorney, who in 1917 presented it to the state who removed the tolls on the road and took over maintenance. By that time there had already been talk of plans for a road that would allow travel completely around Mount Hood.Mount Hood Loop

In 1914 Thomas H. Sherrard, supervisor for the Mount Hood National Forest along with William L. Finley, a naturalist, Rufus Holman, the Multnomah County Commissioner, Leslie Butler and Charles Bell from Hood River and Jacob Kanzler of Portland took a horseback trip around the east side of the mountain much along the route of the present highway 35, which created more interest and faith in the feasibility of a route that would follow the upper Hood River Valley around the east side to the Wapanitia cutoff and the south side road.

Wapanitia Cuttoff

In 1919 a cooperative agreement was signed between the state and the government to build the road. It was started late in the year of 1919, and was completed in late 1924. The first traffic to follow the new road came in the summer of 1925 after the winter snows cleared. The road was only used seasonally until improvements were made and snow removal started in 1967.

And so “The Loop” was complete. Fred McNeil wrote that at its dedication the Mount Hood Loop road was called “The necklace about the old volcano with Portland as its pendant”. The Loop hasn’t lost much of its allure since then and is travelled often today by folks out for a “Sunday Drive”. It is easily travelled in a day, including stops for pictures of mountain vistas, waterfalls and lunch. If anything has been lost, it’s the lack of awareness of what is being passed unnoticed by those that are “making tracks” and not “smelling the rhodies” while encapsulated in their climate controlled, surround sound equipped cocoons that travel at speeds not thought of by the pioneers that travelled before them.

Model A on Laurel HillDo yourself a favor the next time that you are looking for adventure and take the Mount Hood Loop and please, stop and read an historical marker, or visit a museum. There are many shops and restaurants along the way that are just waiting to be discovered as well. If you’ll leave your cocoon and take a side trip or two and stop and smell the rhodies, maybe you’ll figure out why I love my neighborhood so much. Oh, and wave as you pass Brightwood, it’s right off the highway on a great stretch of the old road.

Click here to see vintage pics from the old Mount Hood Loop Road from Wemme to Hood River.

Click here for Mount Hood Loop Map